By Gabrielle Kennedy
Five years ago design critic and writer Alex Coles dived down a hole he spotted in the saturated design media scene. “So many interesting things are happening in design,” he says, “but the value of much of it gets missed due to the nature of design writing and the publications it appears in.”
Typically, design writing is polarized between either short reads, like image-driven magazine style pieces, or academic long reads written by scholars. “I wanted to operate somewhere between the two,” Coles says.
Together with Sternberg Press (Berlin) he came up with the idea for a series of design books called EP – a reference to old-fashioned vinyl records that contained more music than just a single but less than a full album, the so-called ‘extended player’. Volume 1 was released in 2013 (co-edited by Catharine Rossi) and Volume II will be released next month.
A lot has been written recently about the number of design writers crossing into curating and museum work – like Johanna Agerman Ross who recently left Disegno to join the V&A as a curator. “I don’t curate exhibitions,” Coles says. “Instead I put together books that could, I guess, be referred to as editorial design – a way to describe an activity that is a cross over between editing and art direction. Historically, the roles of editor and art director are kept quite separate – the editor works on editorials and texts, and the art director deals with layout and commissioning images. But for EP I needed to be involved in both.”
Coles has chosen to work with the graphic designers Experimental Jetset to develop the language and identity of the series, and theorists like Umberto Eco and curators and gallerists like Paula Antonelli and Libby Sellers. The goal is always to create a different viewpoint and to mix up the too-strict divide between the interests of the more commercial and the more academic side of design.
This post-disciplinary approach – Coles is Professor of Transdisciplinarity at the University of Huddersfield, UK – also extends into content. In general,
he wanted each book to explore the links between design, art and architecture. “At certain moments in time these disciplines interact,” says Coles, “and it is the nature of this interaction that interests me.”
In Volume I Coles focused on the Italian Avant-Garde in the period 1968 – 1976, its critical developments and the tumultuous political backdrop that played a role in it all. “But it wasn’t just old guys talking about old guys,” Coles says. “We got everyone from across generations and disciplines looking through the optic of the present to create a really lively discussion about the currency of the past.”
In it Studio Formafantasma (teachers at Design Academy Eindhoven and curators of Graduation Show 2016) featured, but instead of having this chapter written by a design historian or critic, Coles invited London gallerist Libby Sellers to interview them. “Rather than talk about the more obvious angle of how their work has developed, Sellers asked them about Italy and why they moved to and then stayed in the Netherlands,” explains Coles. “The chapter became more about how their personal journey influences their work. It is the sort of behind-the-scenes thinking that drives design, but which we rarely hear about.”
For EP Volume II the subject is design fiction. “This one is less about a moment in time and more a general swell or a growing reliance on fiction to both generate and communicate ideas,” says Coles. “For it I interviewed Umberto Eco shortly before his death about the relationship between fiction and theory in his writing, from The Open Work and In the Name of the Rose onwards.”
The third volume of LP will be about the notion of post-craft.
Alex Coles will be in discussion with Design Academy Eindhoven alumnus and teacher Lucas Maassen in The Arena Friday 28th at 18.00, and again on Saturday 29th at 12:00, for the ‘In Need Of …’ Round Table discussion.